Is Upper Eaton Canyon About to be Closed?

There has been a bit of a rumor buzz on social media this week concerning a possible near-future closure of the upper reaches of Eaton Canyon, and Modern Hiker has seen a partial email exchange that strongly indicates such a closure may be effective as early as July 1, 2014.

The unconfirmed conversation seems to include employees of the National Forest Service, Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Altadena Mountain Rescue Team, and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, and may indicate that the various agencies in and around the Eaton Canyon area have overcome the previous jurisdictional difficulties that were blamed for delaying any sort of closure action.

According to the emails, the Forest Service land above the Lower Falls – including the unofficial “Razorback Trail” – will be closed to all persons and punishable by fines up to $5000 and up to six months of imprisonment. 15 of the “Area Closure” signs are to be posted around the area, along with 6 “Fall Hazard” signs and 100 decals added to existing Carsonite signs in the area.

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Rumored Closure Notice – click for full

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The text on the signs reads:

In recent years, there have been a number of accidents associated with climbing to the upper waterfalls. Climbing to the upper falls is dangerous. The area is steep, the ground is unstable and hikers get lost and fall off narrow ridges into the canyon. Between 2011 and 2013, there have been many rescues and several deaths at or near the waterfall.

The Closure of the Upper Falls and surrounding area applies only to Forest Service lands. The Forest Area Closure Order (#01-14-04) under 36 CFR 261.53(e) prohibits going into or being upon National Forest System lands within the Eaton Canyon Closure Area (red area on the Map to the left). Violation of this prohibition is punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment for not more than six months or both (16 USC 551, and 18 USC 3559, 3571, and 3581; and CPC 602). Access is still allowed to the Lower Falls.

The dangers of the Upper Falls in Eaton Canyon are nothing new to hikers – Search and Rescue teams are kept busy in the area every summer as inexperienced hikers try to scramble up an unmaintained, very difficult route, which alone accounts for more than half of the annual rescues performed by the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team. The L.A. Times has been writing stories about people getting lost, injured, and killed on the route since at least 1992, and in recent years the rescues seem to have risen in both quantity and frequency. Local agencies have been on a big media push during that time, releasing videos of harrowing rescues and full on PSAs urging people to stay off the crumbling cliffs.

Some have raised doubts about the legitimacy of these sign images – both in the design and the language. The Forest Area Closure Order cited on these documents does not seem to exist yet – although the 2014 list of Orders does list an 01-14-01, 01-14-02, 01-14-03, and 01-14-05. Others have questioned whether the Forest Service has the legal right to close access to an area without public comment if there is no imminent threat to life (such as in a fire area) or for ecological reasons (as in the Williamson Rock closure). Groups like the Coalition of American Canyoneers believe the Forest Service may be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and it’s urging its members to contact Representative Judy Chu and make suggestions for solutions that would still allow canyoneering access on their web site.

It is clear that something has to be done to increase safety in the area.  The easy trail to the Lower Falls draws in relatively inexperienced hikers – who are often seen hiking in flip-flops and without any water – and if they hear about a second waterfall that’s close by that may offer more adventure or solitude, they may be tempted to try for it without fully comprehending what a difficult climb it is.  Pasadena Magazine describes a particularly terrifying section of the main route:

The Nub is a narrow gap in the Razorback Trail where hikers have little more to cling to than a sheer, decomposing rock wall. For hikers with no rock-climbing experience, the only apparent way to navigate the Nub is to hug the rock face for dear life and shimmy as delicately as possible from side to side. Lose your footing or panic and it’s 120 feet straight down to the canyon floor.

I am not, however, sold on the idea of closing off the area completely – especially to canyoneering groups, who are far fewer in number and far more likely to approach the canyon with the appropriate experience and equipment (as well as from a less dangerous direction).  A permit system like the one set up for the Half Dome trail at Yosemite for canyoneers would be a good compromise, especially if the people entering the canyon had to meet with the rangers and double check their maps like hikers have to do at Arches’ Firey Furnace.  I am all for increased signage – maybe something similar to the signs that warn hikers about the dangers of Angel’s Landing at the trailhead, and I could even be sold on fencing off the use-trail from Lower Eaton Canyon … but I think with a blanket closing – especially without public comment – the groups involved may be punishing the many for the faults of the few.

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Repeated attempts to get comments from the Forest Service on this topic have gone unanswered.

If you would like to ask the Forest Service about this topic yourself, there is a web contact form on their site.

The site RopeWiki is documenting the rumors, responses, and legal issues on a page devoted to Eaton Canyon.

What do you think? Should Upper Eaton Canyon be closed completely, or is there a better solution to increasing safety in the area? Is safety more important than access? Where does responsibility lie when an unprepared hiker gets injured on an unofficial trail?

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